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With more smoke surrounding Calipari, NCAA could take action

DESTIN, Fla. -- John Calipari almost spoke at the SEC spring meetings on Tuesday, but he thought better of it. As the Kentucky basketball coach opened his mouth to address reporters about the New York Times' investigation into Kentucky's recruitment of guard Eric Bledsoe, a voice called from inside the open elevator next to where Calipari stood.

"John" was all former Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton said, but it did the trick. Calipari closed his mouth and ducked into the elevator.

Wednesday, no one called from the elevator. Calipari swallowed hard and took questions. He didn't necessarily answer them, but he took them.

"We've responded to it," Calipari said of the Times story. "We're not going to respond to that stuff."

Asked if he'd spoken to Bledsoe since the story appeared, Calipari remained tight-lipped. "We're good on that," he said.

But things are not good for Calipari, who may be due for some good karma after donating $1 million to the Streets Ministries organization in Memphis. The banner commemorating his 1996 Final Four appearance at UMass is in mothballs because an NCAA investigation determined Marcus Camby took money from an agent. Ditto for the banner commemorating his 2008 Final Four appearance at Memphis because an NCAA investigation determined someone took the SAT for star guard Derrick Rose. Now NCAA investigators are sniffing around Bledsoe's hometown of Birmingham, Ala., asking who paid the rent for Bledsoe and his mother and how Bledsoe made such a miraculous academic leap from his junior to his senior year.

Bledsoe, who went one-and-done along with fellow Wildcats freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton, doesn't have to cooperate with any investigation. He can keep his mouth shut and enjoy his NBA money, and there isn't a thing the NCAA can do about it. If Bledsoe could discern the identity of the person who leaked his transcript to the Times, he'd have a lawsuit, but he'd be a fool to file one. That would require under-oath depositions that allow attorneys wide latitude in their lines of questioning. NCAA investigators would gobble up those transcripts.

The difference between the Camby and Rose scandals and the Bledsoe mess is that Calipari had moved on to another job before anything hit the fan. Despite rumors that friend-of-Calipari and hoops power broker William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley is trying to package Calipari with free agent LeBron James, Calipari has pledged his intent to stay in Lexington. He said it on Twitter, so it must be true.

"I made my statement," Calipari said Wednesday. "The only people who seemed to not believe me were you guys. But I said I'm going to be at Kentucky next year. I don't need to say anything else."

Silence is likely best, because anything Calipari says at this point probably will be used against him. Calipari has a fairly solid defense in this case -- the NCAA's initial eligibility center certified Bledsoe's transcript not once but twice -- but the fact that these issues keep popping up around Calipari should give anyone in blue pause. Calipari's only two Final Four banners have come down, and NCAA investigators began asking questions about his recruiting practices as the Wildcats' coach barely a year after he landed at Kentucky.

Now no one will talk about his team's respectable APR. No one will talk about the fact that the one-and-dones stayed behind in Lexington to finish their classes so they wouldn't hurt the program. "A kid has to be a really loyal kid and a good student to want to stay that last month and a half and finish his schoolwork when he knows he's going to the NBA," Calipari said. "Our kids this year did."

But that doesn't matter now, because Calipari is at the center of one more scandal.

It was no secret in the college basketball world that Bledsoe's transcript was a document shrouded in mystery. Whoever signed him was going to get the third degree from the NCAA. Knowing this, and knowing his own history with the NCAA, Calipari signed him anyway. So he shouldn't be surprised that the posse has ridden south from Indianapolis.

Calipari can make a convincing case that he knew nothing about Camby's income, Rose's test score or Bledsoe's transcript. Second only to his mastery of the dribble-drive motion offense is his mastery of the concept of plausible deniability. Calipari has been called Teflon. He's more like Teflon sprayed with WD-40 and dipped in mercury.

Plausible deniability is a critical skill for any major college hoops coach. College basketball recruiting is a cesspool, and every elite program must wade into the muck if it wants to stay elite. (Yes, that includes your favorite program.) Jim Calhoun used it to emerge from Connecticut's recent scandal with not only his job but also a raise. Calipari, meanwhile, has enjoyed PD's protection in both previous scandals.

He's been covered in smoke, but he has yet to touch fire. His problem now is that he's dealing with the NCAA and not a court of law. The NCAA doesn't offer due process. It doesn't have to prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt. It will convict on smoke in the absence of fire. Kentucky just got outfoxed by fired coach Billy Gillispie to the tune of $2.98 million to settle a breach of contract lawsuit. If the NCAA gets so mad at Calipari that it puts Kentucky on probation -- with apologies to Jerry Tarkanian, Cleveland State had better just disband the program in that case -- then heads could roll all over Lexington. Athletic director Mitch Barnhart, who hired Gillispie and Calipari, would be on the block. So would president Lee Todd, who allowed Barnhart to hire Gillispie and Calipari.

Many Kentucky fans have rushed to Calipari's defense. For that, he's grateful. "Coaching at Kentucky is like being in politics," Calipari said. "You've got your core group that absolutely loves you, and the others are trying to unseat you." Of course, Calipari left off the next logical piece of that sentiment. If he coached at Tennessee, Kentucky fans would call him a cheater.

It may behoove Calipari to place a call to Worldwide Wes and ask for placement in the NBA, but he seems resolved to stay at Kentucky and ride out this latest wave. In fact, while he wouldn't talk about Bledsoe's case Wednesday, he was more than happy to address any soon-to-be drafted guard who might want to replace Wall or Bledsoe. "If you're a point guard right now, and you're out there, you kind of say, 'Man, I want to follow in those shoes,' " Calipari said.

But would you?

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